Why It Can Be So Hard to Get Rid of Things in Our Homes

By Matilda Davies
Photo by Angelique Emonet

The act of decluttering and purging unnecessary belongings from our homes is often easier planned for, described, and anticipated than it is done. Many of us find it difficult to part with sentimental items like photos and notes and clothes that evoke a specific memory, but many of us also find it hard to part with things we know we can do without.

To help us better understand why it can be so hard to get rid of things in our homes, we spoke to Eve D’Onofrio, Ph.D. and organizational expert at Sanity & Self, an app designed to help you foster a better self-care practice. Dr. D’Onofrio has been a professional organizer for ten years, specializing in hoarding, ADHD, grief and loss, and autism spectrum disorders.

“The process of going through your physical things, reflecting on them, considering the stories around them, letting them go or finding them places of honor and purpose, allows us to reflect on our lives, our own stories, and how we relate with the things around us,” says D’Onofrio.

But not all things that fill our homes create clutter: “There may also be some things you hold on to simply because they make you feel good or because you admire their intrinsic beauty. That’s not clutter.”

Dr. D’Onofrio discussed with us reasons why it can be so hard to get rid of things in our homes, and what you can do about it.

1. A sense of obligation to inanimate objects

“Many of us will hold on to items that remind us of our past, of lost connections, of our old identities,” says D’Onofrio. “This is normal, but many of us take this too far, keeping more and more things we feel some kind of obligation to, without really considering why we are keeping them and allowing them to take up space in our lives.”

The fact is, you determine what you keep—the decision is yours. Consider what you want the outcome of the exercise to be: a cleaner house, a clearer mind, less time spent cleaning, a fresh start moving forward. With these things in mind, purge toward your determined end.

“The more you are able to focus on who you are and what you want for your life, the easier it is to let go of both things and behaviors that don’t serve you.”

2. Anxiety

“Clutter is the result of deferred decision making,” says D’Onofrio. But for many, that decision grows from deferred to forgotten. The longer something sits on your desk, the less likely you are to notice it—it effectively becomes a fixture.

“When an object comes into your home—the mail, new groceries, your kids’ backpacks—they need to be put somewhere OR need to go away, and that requires a decision. Over time, making these decisions can be a source of anxiety, stress, even pain,” she says. “One of the best ways to declutter is to acknowledge the anxiety of decision-making and find ways to manage or tolerate the anxiety that comes along with making these decisions.”

To prevent deferred decision making from being a barrier to a cleaner home, take five minutes every morning and ten minutes every evening to make decisions about the mail, about the kitchen counter, the dishes that have built up on the coffee table. D’Onofrio’s advice: “Each thing in your home needs a home.”

Or institute clutter rules for your household—kids cannot get out another toy or activity until others have been put away, mail is opened and sorted at the mailbox rather than brought inside to pile up on the table, everyone must put away laundry before bed, no new water glasses until the others have been washed or put into the dishwasher.

3. Fear of change

Decluttering or purging means change, and D’Onofrio says though it’s natural to have a fear of change, “Making physical changes in your environment can have an enormous impact on your mood, outlook, and feelings of contentment. Decluttering your home allows you to breathe, reflect, and be in your space in a different way.”

Change requires vulnerability and risk, even when moving in a positive direction.”

If fear of change is the factor, weigh this against the outcome of purging unnecessary items. An organized home can increase your productivity and in fact, studies have shown that decluttering, being organized, and living with less materialistic things can help prevent anxiety and stress as well as increase productivity for individuals.

4. Fear of letting go

“Clutter are the things you keep because you think you SHOULD. If an object doesn’t serve you today, even if you thought it might have five years ago, let it go.”

D’Onofrio acknowledges that getting rid of something that you meant to use or enjoy but didn’t—think an expensive article of clothing or a new gadget—can create feelings of shame, regret, embarrassment, and guilt.

For these items, let the benefit of the change overrule the guilt and give the items to a church or non-profit organization or donate them to a friend or a family member who can use them.

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